To many people, Siem Reap is equivalent to Angkor Wat and it’s just that. No doubt the Angkor Temples in the massive Angkor Archaeological Site are very impressive, they are not the only attractions in this city. To avoid being “templed out” (which I’m sure many visitors to Siem Reap are), I opted to visit the Kampong Khleang floating village on the Tonle Sap lake. I also joined a volunteer programme to break the monotony and to also better understand a part of the real Cambodian life.
Kampong Khleang Floating Village
There are three main floating villages on the lake with Chong Khneas being the nearest to Siem Reap. However because the place has turned too commercialised, it has received some bad reviews. With that reason, I chose to visit Kampong Khleang. It is probably the most remote and least visited floating village located furthest away from Siem Reap (about 40km).
Since I was travelling alone, I needed a driver whom I would feel safe with. After reading the reviews based on Neverending Voyage’s recommendation, I contacted the Kim brothers for my trip to Kampong Khleang. Kim Seng, the younger of the 2 brothers, agreed to be my driver cum tour guide.
It was a very dusty and at-times bumpy 1.5-hours tuk-tuk drive from Siem Reap. But I enjoyed the scenery and was busy taking photographs of the life of the locals whilst trying to shield my camera from the dust! When we finally reached our destination, I felt like I could shake off a bucket full of sand and dust off me!!
Whilst Kim went to arrange for our boat ride, I wandered outside the school where the tuk-tuk parked. The kids were having their break and they waved at me. One nosy kid was curious about my camera. He posed for me (the grumpy-looking guy). After I showed him the photo on my camera, he broke into a smile and called his friends to join him. I had the opportunity to take these fun photos of the local kids.
Kim then collected me from the school and we walked to the pier for our boat ride.
After hopping past a few boats, I realised that we had the boat all to ourselves! We then slowly made our way out to the middle of the Tonle Sap lake with Kim providing me with information of the village, the lake and the lives of the people. When I had a question that he couldn’t answer, he would turn to the boatman and then translate the answer to me.
The water level on the lake will rise during the wet season so many of the houses are built on stilts, as high as 10 metres above ground, to avoid having their houses being flooded.
Without a doubt, the people here are poor and they depend on fishing for survival. However, I was told that due to over-fishing activities, the fishes are now usually not that big.
The poorer villagers who cannot afford a proper stilt house have to have floating houses on the lake which means they literally go with the flow of the lake.
It was the dry season when I visited in late December 2014 so the water level was pretty low (about 3 metres deep at the deepest end) and vast amount of land was visible. During these dry periods the villagers grow crops like cabbage and soya beans on the land.
People use boats for almost everything around here in Kampong Khleang and they were steered by people of all ages.
Kampong Khleang is still a very authentic floating village with few tourists. While I was there, I saw only 3 other boats carrying tourists and a few kayakers on the entire lake.
Our boat stopped in the middle of the lake for tourists like me to enjoy the view. Kim and I chatted casually, talking about cultures, his life and how he learned English. It was really nice and relaxing with the tranquility of the lake. The lake was calm except for the occasional waves coming from passing boats.
On our way back to the village, I asked Kim whether the locals required any license to drive the boats. After getting a “nope” from our boatman, I then asked if he would be willing to let me try since it looked easy. Although a little hesitant in the beginning, our boatman seemed happy to let me do his job for a while and even helped to take photographs!
What I like about Kampong Khleang is the simplicity and calmness. Everyone was very friendly and curious about us foreigners; they would smile with sincerity and wave. There’s no touting, no tourist traps, no scams. There’s no entrance fees required to visit the village, no shopping for tourists and most importantly the money for the boat rides went straight to the boatmen – I know because I saw it with my own eyes.
After the boat ride, Kim brought me to visit the “dry” part of the village, including the local market which was quiet, probably because it was lunch time. The “market” was essentially the villagers’ homes with shop-fronts selling almost anything you want, including a Dior bag (fake of course).
Further down the road, we saw the locals working hard. They were cutting and preparing the fish to be smoked. Some were laying out the smaller fish by the roadside to be dried which would then be fed to the pigs.
We also saw people selling the bigger fishes they caught for their own consumption.
The villagers’ lives are really simple. They also encourage their children to go to school to hopefully get them out of the vicious cycle. It seems the kids loved going to school as well.
We drove back to Siem Reap after spending about 3 hours at the Kampong Khleang floating village. I have to admit it was a pretty mind-blowing experience since I’ve never seen anything like it. If anyone is heading to Siem Reap, I highly recommend a trip down to Kampong Khleang before it too becomes commercialized.
Do you think more people should visit the floating village or should it be kept away from the tourists to prevent it from being ‘tainted’? Click here to find out what other things can you do in Siem Reap.